Keep Tree Tops Where They Belong

How do we look at trees? Do we view them as living organisms with specific biological needs, or as just something to manipulate? As I look at trees pruned on public and private land, I wonder how much we have learned. Some work is good and some not so good. The not so good is often devastating and usually done without regard to the tree’s biological requirements.

Understanding how trees and branches grow is crucial. As a professional arborist in the Washington area, I am often asked to make decisions about a tree’s safety, health or aesthetics. Excluding any one of these factors could be disastrous to the plant or the client.

We have taken the largest, most magnificent organism on our planet out of the natural forest, placed it in an urban environment and asked it to do things it has never done in millions of years. There are myriad pressures placed on our trees but we expect them to grace us with all the qualities we enjoy in a natural setting. If we are to achieve our expectations, our tree care skills must compliment the plant’s biological requirements.

Trees are obliged to do one thing, which they perform better than any other living organism: They grow bigger every year. They have done this for millions of years and preventing them from growing could bring negative or quite possibly, disastrous results. Our role as tree stewards requires us to look at trees from the three aspects mentioned earlier, safety, health and aesthetics. We must look at these requirements as guidelines for tree care whether the tree is young or old. The practice of topping trees breaks all of these rules. There are no books that I am aware of which promote this practice, however, there are numerous books, journals and years of scientific evidence showing a topped tree is unsafe, unhealthy and unattractive.

I hear your questions and understand when you say, “ How about my fruit trees, ornamental trees or damaged tree tops? “ Treetops that become damaged must be removed. This can occur during storms or from poor branch attachment. Apple trees trained to 8 feet from the start perform better than trees that must be reduced to that height because of neglect. Older, neglected fruit trees can be left taller and pruned as shade trees, which provide flowers and important wildlife habitat. Ornamentals should be planted to achieve their adult growth potential, topping these trees will not allow this natural growth and promotes decay at each point of wounding. Every aspect of maintenance for your ornamental tree will be a direct result of where the tree was placed originally. Site selection must include a consideration of the plant’s genetically programmed growth habits and how it will look 20 years after planting. Proper site selection is essential.

Topping is most evident when it is done to large shade trees. These trees lower our cooling and heating costs, while providing canopy under which we picnic with family and friends. A kindergartner once told me at an Arbor Day celebration, “tall trees are important because that’s where the monkeys live!”

From the mouths of babes! What a profound statement. Sometimes, tree professionals and tree owners just need to sit and listen.

Trees that are topped never recover and never become what they could have been. When we change a tree’s genetically programmed growth requirements by topping or removing too much of the trees’ green biomass, we force them into decline. Trees have a mass to energy ratio that has been dictated for millions of years. We must understand the tree’s internal biology, and allow it to do what it does best; get bigger every year!

Finally, trees are art. I call it the Monet/Van Gogh factor. Topping trees and “heading back” branches ruins the structural, artful architecture of any tree. When we assist trees in doing what they do naturally, we move towards a safe, healthy and aesthetically positive environment for people and trees. Trees are an investment, financially and intrinsically. In Wye Mills, Maryland we just lost the National Champion White Oak tree that lived for nearly 500 years. On the West Coast there are Redwood trees 5,000 to 10,000 years old. When humans reach 100 years we revere them as noble people. Some trees are almost 10 times that age. How do we revere them?

Trees can be easily destroyed through outdated methods of tree care. Dr. Alex Shigo, a prominent researcher and scientist, has shown through 5 decades of experiments that we can, through education, be our tree’s best friend and can, through practices such as topping, be its worst enemy.

Let’s look at trees through their “eyes” and biological requirements. Let’s look at them, as an artist would, helping them do what they do best, to grow and become the largest, most magnificent organisms on the planet. Urban trees are at our mercy but we have the power and the knowledge to make the right decisions!

Copyright 2005 by Peter Deahl. All rights reserved.

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